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Is China using historic talks to prop up Taiwan's pro-Beijing ruling party?

AFP | Ma Ying-jeou at the presidential palace in Taipei on November 4.

The leaders of China and Taiwan will meet for the first time since 1949 this weekend, prompting speculation that the surprise rapprochement is aimed at boosting the pro-Beijing ruling party ahead of January 2016 elections.

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When Taiwan's leader Ma Ying-jeou meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore, it will be an unprecedented official stamp on a seven-year-long rapprochement that has seen the relaunch of direct flights, trade deals and a tourism boom as the two sides have forged new, and previously unthinkable, ties.

The two countries split at the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949. It was the start of decades of hostility as self-ruled Taiwan forged its own identity and developed into a democracy, while Beijing insisted that Taiwan was still part of its territory to be reintegrated by force, if necessary.

But when Ma, of the pro-China KMT party, came to power in 2008 promising better relations that would lead to prosperity, ties swiftly warmed and high-level talks resumed for the first time in more than 10 years.

China hailed the talks as a milestone in a dispatch on the state-run Xinhua news agency that said the two sides would "exchange views on promoting the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations", referring to the stretch of water that separates them.

"For the past seven years ... the two sides have built up mutual trust and opened up a path of peaceful development," it cited Zhang Zhijun, head of the mainland's Taiwan affairs office, as saying.

There were few other details on the substance of the summit. Ma's spokesman said that the goal is to "secure cross-Strait peace", but that there would be no agreement signed nor any joint statement issued after the talks.

KMT tipped to lose forthcoming elections

The meeting also comes just months before presidential and parliamentary elections in Taiwan, which the KMT is expected to lose to the main opposition – and Beijing-sceptic – Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

According to Jean-Vincent Brisset, a senior fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), Beijing is keen to prop up the KMT ahead of the polls, due in January 2016, when Ma will step down due to term limits.

“The KMT’s image has taken a hit in recent years and Beijing feels it has got to give its new leader its full backing,” Brisset told FRANCE 24, adding that the Chinese want to underscore the benefits of closer economic ties while paying down traditional desires to reunify the two countries.

“Chinese popular opinion is pro-unification,” he said. “But the pragmatists who run the country do not see this as a realistic option anymore.”

“The KMT, meanwhile, is trying to create a consensus in Taiwan towards further improving relations with China,” he said, adding that this particular challenge comes amid widespread concern among Taiwanese voters about China’s powerful influence and questionable human rights record.

Taiwanese fears

Indeed, the KMT’s popularity has plummeted in recent years, with its China-friendly policy a major factor in its flagging popularity.

The party suffered its heaviest-ever local election defeat last year, with many voters feeling that only big business had benefited from improved Chinese ties, rather than ordinary Taiwanese people.

There are also concerns over lack of transparency, and last year saw the unprecedented occupation of parliament by student protesters angered by a trade agreement they said had been made in secret.

Taiwan's top China policy decision-making body, the Mainland Affairs Council, denied that the upcoming meeting was an election ploy.

"Everyone wants to maintain cross-Strait peace, so we are taking steps to reinforce that and deepen interactions between the two sides," Mainland Affairs Council chief Andrew Hsia told AFP.

But DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen asked why the announcement of Saturday’s meeting had come out of the blue.

"I believe people across the country, like me, felt very surprised," she said in remarks to reporters. "To let the people know in such a hasty and chaotic manner is damaging to Taiwan's democracy."

The party added in a statement: "Any interaction between the two sides can only happen when it will benefit the country's free and democratic development as well as regional stability."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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